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6. Prince of Darkness (1987)
The second installment of Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy, Prince of Darkness takes a creative approach to a story of demonic possession by mixing in Carpenter's interest in theoretical physics. A group of scientists investigate a cylinder of mysterious green liquid found in the basement of an abandoned church; the goop turns out to be the father of Satan himself. Visually striking, the film looks like part Poltergeist, part Un Chien Andalou. (Crawling ants meet projectile vomiting.) It also features a brief cameo by Alice Cooper, who displays one of the most ingenious uses of a bicycle I've ever seen.
5. They Live (1988)
In 1988, few knew what to make of this dark sci-fi satire about a world of subliminal alien control visible only through special sunglasses. Recent critics have viewed it more favorably as a sharp, funny satire of '80s conservatism. Even its B-movie aesthetics look better than they did at the time. Regardless of how you feel about its politics, the film features one of the longest and most hilarious fight sequences in film history, along with the endlessly quotable line, "I've come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum."
4. Big Trouble In Little China (1986)
Carpenter's genre-mashing reached its pinnacle with this epic action-adventure comedy. Take a dash of kung-fu and a sprinkle of urban gangster, add equal parts John Wayne and the Marx Brothers, and you'll have an idea of what to expect from this extravaganza. Kurt Russell again delivers a stellar performance, this time as Jack Burton, the all-American truck driver who talks big but generally falls on his ass when it comes to actual heroism. Dragged into an ancient battle beneath Chinatown, Burton enters a world of feuding demons, devils, gods, and martial artists, with a giant floating eyeball thrown in for good measure. If Big Trouble isn't Carpenter's very best movie, it's almost certainly his most fun.
3. Escape From New York (1981)
Carpenter's fifth feature has the kind of diabolical exploitation-film premise someone like Quentin Tarantino could only dream of making up. Set in a dystopic 1997, Escape finds Manhattan surrounded by a fifty-foot containment wall and used as a prison for the nation's most violent criminals. But when Air Force One crash-lands in the heart of the city, the government can only count on one man to bring back the President. Enter Snake Plissken, the recently captured war hero turned criminal who's as dangerous as he is expendable. Kurt Russell gave a career-defining performance as the one-eyed antihero, creating an urban Billy the Kid who audiences couldn't help but root for, and Carpenter managed to create a convincing future New York in all its gritty detail on a remarkably small budget.
2. Halloween (1978)
Ushering in the age of the slasher flick, Halloween did for babysitting what Psycho did for motel showers. Apart from its universally recognizable theme music (composed by Carpenter himself), Halloween features one of the most iconic villains in film history, Michael Myers, who embodies everything that goes bump in the night — a faceless terror who is as relentless as he is invincible. But what separates this film from the countless imitations that followed is the artistry behind the film's suspense. Carpenter's tracking shots and wide-angle lenses build a sense of impending doom from all directions; his deliberate pacing gradually builds tension to unbearable levels. Indebted to the Hitchcock ethos that less is more, Halloween is often scariest when it's not showing you something. Many directors have attempted sequels and remakes of this classic, but none have matched the craftsmanship of Carpenter's original.
1. The Thing (1982)
If Halloween was about faceless terror, Carpenter's remake of the 1951 B-movie The Thing From Another World aimed to give its villain the most terrifying face possible. Set in the secluded wasteland of the Antarctic, The Thing concerns a group of scientists who encounter an alien species capable of mimicking human form. The scientists realize that one or more of them may already be infected by the alien, resulting in an atmosphere of paranoia more dangerous than the monster itself. The Thing has no false notes. The plot is tight; the characters and setting create an gripping sense of hysteria and claustrophobia; and the revolutionary creature effects by Rob Bottin remain more convincing and inventive than any CGI could match. A commercial failure at the time, The Thing in all its pessimistic glory is now considered one of the greatest horror movies ever made. It's Carpenter's masterpiece.